Britton Johnsen is a changed man.
Anyone who saw the former Ute play in the Rocky Mountain Revue the other night for the Spurs recognized the transformation. The evidence had less to do with his stat totals, although they were impressive - 21 points on 8-for-14 shooting and eight rebounds in a win over the Atlanta Hawks - and more to do with the first play of the game.
As the Spurs went into their initial offensive set, Johnsen aggressively came off a pick and fired up a shot from four feet beyond the three-point arc. It missed, clanking off the rim.
"But," says Johnsen, "it felt good. And that's how I feel, too. I'm not going to worry about it. If I'd done that in college, [Rick] Majerus would have benched me and yelled at me, during the game, after the game, and the next day in practice. That mentality rubbed off on me. I was afraid that if I missed a shot, I might disappoint someone. Now, I don't care about that. I'm just playing."
Playing better than most anyone else at the Revue.
"My motivation is full throttle," he says. "This might be my last shot at the NBA. It's hard to even sleep at night.
"It's intense out there. Everybody on the court is going 100 percent. We're all doing everything we can to make it," Johnson said. "We're a bunch of desperate men."
Desperate men dancing on lunacy's edge, hard between playing in Boise or Bismarck and New York or Los Angeles.
Johnsen has existed in that no man's land for better than two seasons, nearly always being encouraged that he is just one quick cross-over from the big time, while shouldering the burden of a dream almost realized during stints in the bushes.
"The NBA is outrageous," he says. "The treatment players get is amazing. There's money, you get a $100 per diem for meals every day. There's chartered flights. There are big contracts. Guys try to outdo each other. One guy goes out and buys a nice car and the next guy goes out and buys a nicer one. It's crazy."
Johnsen has seen Bentley-mania up close and personal, spending time with the Orlando Magic and the Indiana Pacers. His brief opportunity with the Pacers came after the Pistons brawl last season that got a chunk of the team suspended. He lasted just two weeks and six games before a number of players came off the injured list. Johnsen caught the attention of Pacers coach Rick Carlisle, who told him he needed more of one thing before he could stick in the league.
"He said, 'You need to be more of an a-hole,' " says Johnsen. "He said, 'You have to try to tear people's heads off.' "
Meantime, Johnsen was released and dragged himself back to the CBA, where he played for the Idaho Stampede for the remainder of last season. He played well, but the depression that sidled up alongside was heavy to haul.
"I'd tasted the NBA and now I was back riding the bus," he says. "I went from the Ritz-Carlton to a Motel 6."
The worst of it came on Christmas, when the small forward was back with the Stampede, riding on an old beater bus without a functioning heater from Sioux Falls, S.D., to Bismarck, N.D. The bus subsequently broke down and the team was stranded in minus-15-degree weather at a gas station in the middle of nowhere.
"It almost turned funny," he says. "Really, it was sad."
A Bentley would have come in handy that day.
But at some unknown juncture on that cold road from nowhere to somewhere, Johnsen started to flourish. He began getting a groove and putting up big numbers in games nobody cared about and nobody watched. Still, he was proving something to himself.
Since his days at Utah, where expectations ran so high for the former McDonald's prep All-American from Murray, his personal sensitivity to criticism from his coach nearly paralyzed him, especially at the offensive end. Majerus and Johnsen were a bad match, and he was slow to shake off the effects.
He looked for someone, maybe ghosts, to apologize to after every mistake.
That lack of confidence, that penitent posture, is gone now, on account of an unexpected influence - the birth of his son six months ago.
"It rejuvenated me," he says. "It was a life-changing experience. It put things in perspective. I don't worry about things as much. It sounds kind of cheesy, but, when I'm on the court, I don't fret about things. I just do my best and have fun, knowing when I get home, my wife and son will be there for me. There's something magical about that."
Johnsen's comfort zone expanded to the size of David Letterman's. He let the material roll. His game still needs improvement, but that debilitating anxiety is at last gone.
"You get to the point where you say, 'I'm sick of this, I'm putting it all out on the line,' " he says. "I already have what's most important in life. Now, I'm inches away from the NBA happening for me. I feel like the sky's the limit. I need to find the right spot, the right team, but I can be a difference-maker. I can take myself where I want to go. Can I be an NBA All-Star? Probably not. But I can play and play well in the league."
If the chance doesn't come sometime soon, Johnsen will bolt for Europe, where he's already getting lucrative offers. But he wants somebody on American soil, preferably a team that charters a jet and stays at places north of the roach motel, to recognize the advances in his abilities.
Just like he has.
"My game is coming into a zone where I've always wanted it," he says. "Everybody always talked to me about my potential. Well, it's finally being fulfilled. I'm turning into the player I always wanted to be. No matter where I end up, that feels good. I can just go play."
2001-02 Utah achievements
l He averaged 12.6 points and 6.3 rebounds per game his senior year.
l He was also picked as the MWC Coaches' Player of the Year 2001-02.